This blog post was written back in June 2021. Back then we didn’t have a Mastodon account (although Adrian’s was a few years old by then) and the Fediverse was a much quieter place. We didn’t get round to publishing it at the time, and then with the Twitter-influx of November 2022 events seemed to have overtaken it.
So, on with our thoughts on MCQN Ltd’s place on Mastodon. All that’s changed since we wrote it is that we’ve set up our own instance, rather than just talking about doing so.
A while back, Adrian wrote about platforms and the open web, reflecting on the centralisation of our web infrastructure, the user-unfriendliness of social media platforms, and where we should be building culture online. We’ve been thinking about these kinds of things for a while, and wanted to share our thoughts with you as part of the wider conversation about social media.
At MCQN we’re keen on common approaches. We believe that treating materials, tools, and ideas as a shared commons leads to better outcomes than centralising those things, and by implication, centralising power. It might not always be straightforward, or tidy, to manage a commons - but it might not be as tragic as you think.
When it comes to computer programs and smartphone apps, this philosophy lines up with something called Open Source software. You might be familiar with that term, or you might not. The ‘Source’ refers to ‘source code’ - the building blocks of software. Essentially, open sourcing a piece of software means anyone with the time and skills can inspect, modify and change the software if they want to. If twitter was open source, you could make your own twitter which changed everyone’s posts to dolphin noises.
When it comes to day-to-day business stuff, we are privileged enough to almost exclusively use open source software. What does that look like? Well, we use Element (a Matrix client) instead of WhatsApp or Slack for chatter. We use FreeCAD instead of Fusion360 for 3D design. LibreOffice instead of MS Office for word processing. Inkscape instead of Illustrator for 2D design. Gitlab, Shotcut, KiCad… we could go on and on!
I’m sure you’ve come across more critiques of big tech and social media than you can count. Any centralised platform - but notably Twitter, Instagram and Facebook - have a bundle of problems that many people accept as the cost of using the service. For others, those costs are unacceptable. Federation to the rescue!
The social network of the future: No ads, no corporate surveillance, ethical design, and decentralization! Own your data with Mastodon—Try it today!
That’s how the official development team describe Mastodon: a federated, open source social network that uses the ActivityPub protocol. Pixelfed is an Instagram-like social network using the same protocol, which means you can even follow accounts across the two! Instagram could never.
If you signed up for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you can sign up for Mastodon. Only this time, you’ll be in control of your data.
When you join Mastodon, you will need to choose an ‘instance’. It’s like Mastodon is a country, and you need to pick a town to live in.
Your town could be geographically based, like toot.wales, but can be based around a community (like MIT), or a common interest (like photography). Remember that dolphin analogy from earlier? I didn’t make it up, it’s a Mastodon instance over at dolphin.town.
EEEE EEEEE EEE aside, we think open source social media platforms like Mastodon will make society better. Both in terms of allowing managing individuals own needs for privacy and security as well as some significant systematic benefits.
With that in mind, we want to see it grow. And for it to achieve a critical mass that displaces the use of big platforms.
Going to Market
And we think that critical mass will include organisations, businesses and… brands.
It’s well known that marketers ruin everything. Some of our readers will remember Twitter before companies figured out that tweets could help them make money.
The clue is in the name: MCQN Ltd. It is a limited company, and one of its goals is to make money. We’re mission driven, but also paying-people-to-do-the-mission driven.
And to make money, people need to know you exist, that you have something to sell, and a way to buy it. Conventional wisdom would have you set up a Facebook account and pump time and money into promoted content.
When you factor in the labour, overhead and ad spend of this kind of an effort, it can easily hit £10,000 worth of investment a year, even for a micro-company like ours.
This is a substantial figure! And Facebook would skim off a significant part of it, not just in raw currency, but in cementing their platform as the main show in town.
What would the impact be of placing this level of investment in Mastodon? Would it foster a healthy ecosystem, or poison the well with sales spam?
MCQN Ltd will be posting interesting things, writing how-to’s and having conversations. Not just posting sales links all day, but being a contributing member of the communities it engages with. But at the end of the day, we do hope the visibility and value we bring will have some positive effect on revenue.
We are aware not everyone wants commercial Mastodon accounts to show up. But our view is that to some extent, organisations will come into this space in some form. We’re not the first to notice or the first to set up a company account at least partly with sales in mind.
We’re likely to set up a company instance, but want to do it thoughtfully. By joining as an early adopter, we see a chance to help form good standards and best practices for commercial organisations entering the Fediverse.
[We did! There’s only one account on it so far; but @MCQN_Ltd@social.mcqn.com has been posting since Nov 2022. There’s likely to be another account on there relatively soon, and more will come over time (if nothing else, @merseyshipping will get ported at some point!)]
This whole article is part of a question we’ve been playing with: ‘What could we do that applies pressure on more cynical organisations and individuals joining Mastodon?’
One option might be flagging an account, or even a whole instance, as commercial. This would give users or hosts control over if and how they wanted to see that content. A company instance might declare itself with something like a robots.txt file or hcard markup on the host page.
There is already a bit of a precedent for bots, with the dedicated bots in space instance. And it seems unlikely big brands would feel comfortable joining an instance managed by someone outside of their organisation, so hosting their own may be the obvious choice. I don’t mean to upset anyone, but maybe something like https://social.mcdonalds.com is not far off. On the other hand, small companies may not have the skills or capacity to host their own instance - in this situation could admins of instances flag whether their instance was welcoming to companies? To an extent, it would have to depend on good faith and collective accountability - that’s the commons!
If we can collectively set some best practices, we can then evangelise the philosophical and commercial benefits of open source social media for businesses. Such as being in control of your own marketing data (no threats of channel deletion for playing moonlight sonata), and knowing that the platform can’t artificially limit your content’s reach to your customers in a gambit to get more ad spend out of you. But without being able to pester users that do not want advertising or commercial content.
What do you think about all this?
If you have any thoughts of your own on this subject, we would be grateful to hear them! Especially if you disagree with something.
Without the commercial incentives of other platforms, growth on federated platforms may be slow.
So rather than deleting our Instagram and Twitter accounts, we’re leaning towards breadcrumbs that support people in escaping the dopamine dungeon.
This might look like a bot that automatically posts content to Twitter from Mastodon, but includes a standard “see more on mastodon” type content and guides to on-board people. This will only have a small effect, but if part of their switch is to set up the same bot for their own account, it could snowball a bit and help the mass migration. Would anyone be interested in using it?
A (very) long read, an extract from cory doctorow’s recent book, which resonated with the reasoning of federated web: onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59
Good overview page fediverse.party/en/mastodon